Student Question

How are tone, mood, and character gender-focused in "John Henry" and "Mary Tired"?

Quick answer:

The tone and mood of "John Henry" reveals the central character's cheerful, hard-driving nature. It is male gendered in being a linear narrative focused on physical feats, competition, and heroism. John Henry draws sustenance from the adoring female gaze. In contrast, the tone and mood of "Mary Tired" is quiet and meditative, reflecting the Virgin Mary's character. It is female gendered in focusing on everyday life. Mary is content within herself and doesn't rely on applause or adoration.

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The tone and mood of "John Henry" is cheerful and hard-driving, much like the man. John Henry is characterized as hardworking and physically strong. The ballad is male-gendered in that it centers around competition—his hammer competes with a steel drill—and winning:

before I let this steam drill beat me down,
I'll hammah myself to death.

This is a linear narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end, a triumphalist narrative that is often associated with male-gendered writing. It is male gendered, too, in that John Henry depends for affirmation on the admiring female gaze. His spouse is described in condescending terms as his "cute liddle wife," and she comes

to see her brave steel drivin' man.

John Henry is also depicted as the good male provider, having saved up $10,000 from his hard work to buy his "pretty liddle" wife a house.

In the end, John Henry works too hard and dies, his intestines spilling out. Nevertheless, as is typical of a male text, he is celebrated (especially by the affirming female gaze) and remembered as a hero:

All the women in the West
That heard of John Henry's death,
Stood in the rain, flagged the east bound train
They took John Henry to the White House,
And buried him in the san',
And every locomotive come roarin' by,
Says there lays that steel drivin' man.

In contrast, the tone and mood of "Mary Tired" is quiet and meditative, reflecting Mary's gentle, centered character. The Virgin Mary is not robust and energized, but tired as she enters the stable to sleep. She finds gentle solace in watching the animals all around her, which characterizes her as a nature lover. She is focused on the here and now and on others more than herself:

Silken doves that dipped and preened
Where the crumbling well-curb greened;
Sparrows in the vine, and small
Sapphired flies upon the wall,
So lovely they seemed musical.

Unlike John Henry, she is not driven to prove anything to anyone and is content within herself, not needing admiration or to be heralded as a hero. This poem captures a simple slice of life and eschews the heroic gesture, even though at the end, we are reminded that Mary is the mother of Jesus, "the Ransom of the World." All of this reflects the repetitive, circular, domestic nature of a traditional woman's life.

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